U.S. Intelligence Report Warns of Global Water Tensions

Courtesy of The New York Times, a report on a recently released American intelligence community study which warned that problems with water could destabilize countries in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia over the next decade.  As the article notes:

“…Increasing demand and competition caused by the world’s rising population and scarcities created by climate change and poor management threaten to disrupt economies and increase regional tensions, the report concludes.

Prepared at the request of the State Department, the report is based on a classified National Intelligence Estimate completed last October that reflected an increasing focus on environmental and other factors that threaten security. An estimate reflects the consensus judgment of all intelligence agencies.

While the report concluded that wars over water are unlikely in the coming decade, it said that countries could use water as political and economic leverage over neighbors and that major facilities like dams and desalination plants could become targets of terrorist attacks. Coupled with poverty and other social factors, problems with water could even contribute to the political failure of weaker nations.

The public report, unlike the classified version, did not specify countries at greatest risk for water-related disruption but analyzed conditions on major river basins in regions with high potential for conflict — from the Jordan to the Tigris and Euphrates to the Brahmaputra in South Asia.

“During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will almost certainly experience water problems — shortages, poor water quality, or floods — that will contribute to the risk of instability and state failure, and increase regional tensions,” the report said. “Additionally states will focus on addressing internal water-related social disruptions which will distract them from working with the United States on important policy objectives.”

The report warned that water shortages would become acute in some regions within the next decade, as demand continued to rise. While disputes over water have historically led to negotiated settlements over access, upstream countries will increasingly use dams and other projects “to obtain regional influence or preserve their water interests” over weaker countries downstream.

This is already happening on the Tigris and Euphrates, where Turkey, Syria and Iran have harnessed the headwaters of the two rivers that flow through Iraq.

The release was timed to the announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of a new partnership to promote conservation and improved management in conjunction with corporations like Coca-Cola and Ford and nongovernmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy.

The report said that improvements in management — like the use of drip irrigation systems — could ease the potential for shortages, especially in agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of the world’s water use.

“Numerous countries have over-pumped their groundwater to satisfy growing food demand,” the report said. “Depleted and degraded groundwater can threaten food security and thereby risk social disruption.”

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